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Remembering Governor Mario Cuomo & The Tenement Museum


Last week when former Governor Mario Cuomo passed away at the age of 82, The Lower East Side Tenement Museum lost a friend. The Tenement Museum was created in 1988 when Mr. Cuomo was still governing the State. He didn’t actually visit the museum until a decade after his term ended.

Mr. Cuomo visited 97 Orchard Street for a special tour on a crisp November day in 2003. Accompanied by our former President and founder Ruth Abram, the Museum apparently made an impact on the former Governor as he went on the Hard Times tour. He engaged with his educator concerning how or whether he could justify the use of a tenement for historic interpretation in the face of a desperate need for affordable housing. Hearing the stories of the various immigrant families that lived at 97 Orchard Street, Mr. Cuomo began to analyze what about himself could be said to be “Italian”. And what exactly that meant?

Mario Cuomo visiting The Tenement Museum in 2003

Governor Cuomo clearly enjoyed his visit to the Museum because a year later, in 2004, he honored the Museum by serving as the keynote speaker at The Tenement Museum’s Annual Gala. During his speech, Cuomo revealed quite a lot about his own immigrant family. He said:

“My mother and father came here in the 1920s without skills or formal education, speaking a regional dialect from the mountains of Salerno… with two children, no money, no work… suffering discrimination.”

He went on to emphasize the importance of The Tenement Museum and discuss the importance of future immigration to the United States.

“The Lower East Side Tenement Museum reminds us of how hard life was for those who jammed themselves into small, rickety tenement rooms with neither plumbing nor electricity. The Museum reminds us how valuable those tough and daring ancestors were to the growth of ‘The Big Apple’ and much of the rest of the world…”

Mario Cuomo speaking at The Tenement Museum Annual Gala in 2004

Mr. Cuomo continues to inspire us with the optimism of his remarks. Looking toward the future Mr. Cuomo continued:

“But the new immigrants will not be… like my parents’ generation; they won’t be part of the ‘huddled masses.’ The color and accent of most… will be different, but they will come bearing gifts….Eager to work hard, with a fresh appreciation of the glorious good fortune all Americans enjoy, a yearning to breathe free the air of opportunity.”

Posted by Jon Pace, The Lower East Side Tenement Museum